Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel Safekeeping is a sweeping and historical tale of the men and women who work and live on a kibbutz, an Israeli commune based around socialist ideals.The novel is based on a cast of characters running away from past sins and working toward new lives, featuring a young drug addict looking for his grandfather’s true love from decades prior and the matriarch of the kibbutz whose traditional values are being upended as a result of her life’s work. I spoke with Hope about her own time on kibbutzim and how it evolved into her book.
Where did the story of Safekeeping come from?
In 1994, in my 20th year, I went to spend the summer on a relative’s kibbutz in Israel, about four miles from the Lebanon border. I went back the next summer to spend time on a kibbutz near Haifa. The questions that came to me that summer about personal identity versus communal identity, things that happened to people I met there continued to haunt me. So I set out to write a novel, and while I was writing it, I realized that to capture the meaning of that place and the diverse cast of
characters that lived there, I needed to go further back and forward in time and to go beyond the borders of the kibbutz.
What did it mean in the greater scope of history?
For me, the kibbutz exemplifies human perseverance. Most kibbutzim in the state of Israel were founded, in part, by holocaust survivors straight out of death camps. It really left me in awe that people could leave the death camps and instead of giving up on humanity and giving up on existence, they found the strength to start anew and tried to not only start a new country but to start a new society. I wondered if I were to go back in that time period. Would I have been a part of something like that? Although I admired people who are a part of a larger movement, as an artist I’m very much an individual. For me that conflict of wanting to be a part of a larger movement of history and just wanting to be left alone and be an individual was really interesting to me.
In your novel, many characters are on the kibbutz because they had nowhere else to go. Why did you go to a kibbutz at 20?
If you look at volunteers on a kibbutz, a lot of them are people who are running away from something. I was 20 years old, my mom had died recently, and I had a very unhappy home life. Going to the kibbutz was one way of getting as far away as possible without any money. On some level that is one reason I went there, in addition to looking for adventure and exploring my Jewish identity.
I had become recently fascinated with Israel. When I started to read about the history of the country, it inspired me in a way that I needed at that time as someone who had just experienced an immense loss. It was fitting to go to a country that was very young at the time, to see people really trying to start their lives over.
What was your experience like while you lived and worked there?
The kibbutz for me, it was the first time I left North America on my own. I was on the other side of the world. It was the first time in a long time I felt excited about being alive. I started to feel better for the first time. The original kernel for writing a book was to capture that pivotal summer.
In your novel, you highlight a conflict between the communal and the individual when those on the kibbutz are debating whether to stick with socialist principles or change by becoming more capitalistic—differing pay scales and privatization. Is this a common shift?
It’s definitely a trend. Because I was meeting older people on the kibbutz, I wondered what it would feel like to spend your whole life trying to build something and in the last years before you died see that it was failing. Would that change how you felt about your life? That said something about the way we all spend our lives. I worked really hard on this novel. If someone told me ahead of time that in a couple of years no one will ever look at this novel again, would it have changed my ambition?
Would it have?
For me, personally, I would still write the novel.
We all do things all the time, we start relationships, that we know can’t last forever. We constantly live our lives knowing that nothing lasts forever. That was one way, by looking at this community that was passing, of looking at that fact that we try to create things all the time knowing it can’t last.
Sean Rose is a former crime reporter and current Clark House Writer-In-Residence with Texas State University.